Norm Sibum returns to Ephemeris on Friday, July 4. In the meantime, Encore Literary Magazine presents 5 guest Ephemeris columns, the third from poet Richard Greene, winner of the 2010 Governor General’s Award for Poetry for his collection Boxing the Compass.
Nobody likes Texas till they see it. Of course, my Texas doesn’t include lethal injection, so I have something to answer for in that. I sit in a room in Austin and turn over thousands of bits of paper, trying to pin down whatever ghost hovers above any given page. My job is to figure out something about Graham Greene. I spend a good deal of my time telling people I am no relation to the guy. So, I come here, to the Harry Ransom Center, and order up letters and diaries and manuscripts. I read fast and take a picture with my camera when there is something I should think about again later. One day this will all add up to a fat book. If I am spared.
At night, I often go out with Karel – my old pal who knows all you could possibly know about various Paris-based writers, especially the sex-obsessed ones. I also suspect him of nurturing a great novel. No one else suspects him of anything. To them he’s just a washed-up older guy who delivers flowers and spends his nights dancing with beautiful young women. He and his wife take me to their house on a dry hill top, overlooking a wide limestone valley, reminiscent of Italy. In this dramatic spot, they are over-run with deer, who are pretty but given to vandalism. An armadillo may be living out back. Sometimes rattlers slip under the foundation to be cool in the shadows. Tarantulas wander aimlessly past Mingus, the Bengal cat sunning himself on a rock. I once came upon Karel flattening a scorpion with the heel of his boot. Nearby a woman raises dwarf donkeys – very popular at children’s parties – and at dawn you can hear them bray, which sounds like they are being slaughtered.
This valley was empty a few years ago, but Austin is looking for a place to live. Very suddenly, houses happen. Claire is standing there pointing across the valley. “Where did that house come from? They just appear.” Flooding in a little gully can make the road impassable, so Karel and Claire can spend days waiting for a way out.
As a child I could never throw a baseball straight, catch it when it came back, skate with any grace, stick-handle, pass or shoot. I am entirely uncoordinated. Now I do sing nicely, but that is a different matter, just don’t ask for harmony. I have been a disappointment to every woman who ever wanted me to dance. I do it badly for duty’s sake and then try to stop.
We are off to the Broken Spoke. Other nights it may be Gruene Hall or Kendalia, country halls started by German farmers who needed something in their lives apart from sweat and sunstroke. There were over a thousand great dance halls in Texas. Some are architectural wonders, like Anhalt, with its 5,000 square-foot dance floor, where the farmers still speak German and hold traditional May and October fests. The oldest halls still have the wooden shutters that were closed in times of Commanche attacks, complete with slits for the rifles. Nowadays, dancers can be lawyers, civil servants, doctors. The ranchers still come, but there is a renewed enthusiasm for two-stepping. It is more than a craze — it is a devotion. It has nothing to do with the soul-less country music you hear on the radio, or from Nashville. It has its roots in a mix of African-American jazz and swing, with traditional German polkas and waltzes, and bluegrass. Even the Rolling Stones, when they come to Austin, always play “Bob Wills is still the King.” I find it warm-hearted and companionable.
These dancers look out for their own. One of the beloved bands, Mike and the Moonpies, have had their van stolen in Dallas – inside were guitars, drums, a steel guitar, other instruments and all their gear, clothes and earnings. Not to mention a microphone stand that had been in the family for generations. Their fans chip in $16,000 within days to keep them on the road. Other bands lend them instruments and gear. And they are on the road again, to Luckenbach, in a borrowed “magical Baptist bus.” The licence plates say “Don’t mess with Texas.” I can see it has its own meaning for dancers.
The Broken Spoke, in the city itself, is not the oldest dance hall in Austin – fifty years, though, is pretty long. At the time it was built, it was in open country. In the years I have known it, condos and a parking garage have closed in. Worse still, its own parking lot has been paved. They stamp your hand with a wagon wheel. This shows you have paid. Here are hundreds of bright shirts, big belt buckles, Stetsons. The women have a taste for dresses that catch the air when they turn.
Tonight, they start with a dance class for novices, where a woman with a microphone drives home the lesson: Quick, Quick, Slow, Slow. Left hand up, right hand on her shoulder. And no, it’s not a Fox Trot. Claire leads me, Karel watches. I go round the floor, eyes fixed on my feet. The dancer in me does not amount to much. They are kind. Say I have rhythm. I say, “I am like a sequoia in a high wind.” They do not laugh. Later, I Tweet the line. No one anywhere laughs.
I sit down and Karel points out a shadowy man hunched over his beer. “He was Johnny Cash’s keyboard man.” Another evening, it’s Merle Haggard’s guitarist, someone who played with Ray Price, Waylon Jennings, or the former bandleader at Gilley’s (think Urban Cowboy). God knows who will appear on any night. Willie Nelson, a close friend of the owner, likes to sing here, but only unannounced. Here’s where George Strait got his start and his band often appears for private parties. An old man in bare feet, slightly stooped and with a tremor, is dancing close with a woman a third his age. “He was a big influence on Buddy Holly and the Flatlanders,” I’m told, “once owned the largest dancehall between Austin and California, a forgotten musical great.” Near the door is a small museum, with glossies of Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson and Jimmie Dale Gilmour, and relics of the old-time stars whose battered banjoes and guitars have something in them of gravel farms that sprouted in not much more than hurtin’ songs. This is the place where the famous come unobtrusively, to dance with friends and pass an evening listening to great music away from their entourage. Snapshots of Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino, and Robert Duvall stand near one of Fergie from the Black-Eyed Peas taking the dance lesson.
Now, Billy Mata is singing “Macon Georgia Love”. The true dancers are passing where I cannot see the movements of their feet. Their upper bodies have the stillness of swans. There is an art in all this. There is also remembrance. They turn and turn, and make a happiness out of love that went away.